Citizen Accountability in a time of Facebook

14 November 2017

“Develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.”

This is what Facebook’s Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said in his open letter to the Facebook community at the beginning of this year. The statement of intent from the social media giant is a bold one, and one worth reflecting on for those of us working on issues of accountability and empowerment. For me it raises a couple of important questions. How far can or should the likes of Facebook, and other technical innovations that have rapidly evolved over the last ten to fifteen years, connect us all as individuals and engage us with the institutions that govern us and help us hold them to account? And how does this happen in a world where the opportunities and spaces to voice dissent and protest are shrinking, and where questions about ‘whose voice matters’ are further confused and complicated by ‘whose voice is real or authentic’ in this digital age?

Facebook F8 2017 San Jose Mark Zuckerberg (Flickr Creative Commons Attribution 2.0  Generic)

Anthony Quintano: Facebook F8 2017 San Jose Mark Zuckerberg (Flickr Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic)

The promise of tech

They were also questions that arose at the recent Making All Voices Count (MAVC is a programme funded by DFID, Omidyar, SIDA and USAID) Policy and Practice Dialogue, Appropriating Technology for Accountability. And as I reflected in my speech at that event, these questions around transforming and improving accountability are by no means new. However, the context in which we ask them is constantly changing - from the Gutenberg press which took printing out of the hands of priests and put it into the hands of the people over five hundred years ago, to more recently, the advent of the personal computer, the internet (1990), Facebook (2004), Twitter (2006) and What’s App (2011). These technologies have revolutionised the way people access information, how they communicate with each other, as well as institutions and public figures, and how they respond to and organise around particular issues.

There’s no denying the positive force of these technologies in helping people to speak out and to amplify voices in an attempt to hold powerful institutions and individuals to account. This was evident in a number of examples shared over the course of the two-day event – the Black Sash human rights organisation in South Africa who are piloting a project encouraging citizen-led monitoring of local public services; This Is My Backyard (TIMBY) which has highlighted millions of dollars of misspent county social development funds and unearthed a 10.5 million dollar scandal in Liberia; Game my Village which built new relationships of trust and transparency between government officials and villagers in Indonesia and Oil Journey which communicated with over 300,000 citizens in Accra in Ghana about how oil revenues were being spent on community development projects.

Tech and closing civil society space

Yet at the same time there is no escaping the fact that these technical innovations designed to empower are operating in a global environment where civil society space is shrinking. The current situation has been labelled by Civicus as ‘a Global Civic Space Emergency’ in their 2017 State of Civil Society Report. The report highlights that:

  • Only three per cent of the global population live in countries where civic space is completely open.
  • In 106 countries, over half of all countries, civil space is seriously constrained.
  • This problem affects all regions of the world including the UK where civic space has narrowed in the past year.

Indeed, the evidence suggests that technologies are being used to close spaces as much as to open them, to surveil and monitor, as much as to connect and engage.

Examples extend from malware being used to monitor the activities of advocacy and campaigning groups (highlighted in this open letter from Mexican civil society of the Open Government Partnership (pdf) and this IDS Bulletin article The Dark Side of Digital Politics) to state-supported trolling.

For those gathered at the conference, there was a sense that the excitement and optimism that had characterised the work of MAVC and other similar programmes exploring accountability and the role of technologies in creating more open, inclusive and accountable societies only a few years ago was being replaced by a growing pessimism.

A digital level playing field?

The conundrums and paradoxes associated with technology and its role in promoting accountability is also evident in relation to global governance. On the one hand technology has enabled voice and responsive governance, but on the other hand the governance of the digital sphere remains in the hands of a powerful few who control the networks they have created. As reported recently in the New York Times, Google’s market share of search advertising is 88% and Facebook owns 77% of mobile social media traffic.

Digital technologies have created winners and losers, rather than a level playing field. Rather than disrupt, they have often replicated entrenched inequalities and power imbalances within society. Critically, just under half of the world’s population remain offline. Moreover, women are 50 per cent less likely to have access to the internet and a third less likely than men of a similar age, education level and economic status to access their Internet via their phone (World Wide Web Foundation, 2016).

Inequalities also exist within the tech industry. A study in the US found that Hispanics, African Americans, and women hold only 8 per cent, 7.4 per cent and 36 per cent of tech sector jobs respectively (US EEOC 2016). Hence, across decision making, usage and application of technologies it is often the voices of the already powerful that are amplified and the voices which have always been marginalised remain unheard.

Within this unequal context, it has also become increasingly hard to distinguish amongst the myriad of information flows and voices between what’s authentic and what’s not. It is not well understood amongst the majority of technology users, how complex and sophisticated algorithms are being used by companies, by governments and by individuals, to control and manipulate what is shared and liked, and ultimately shape public opinion and debate.

While technology has helped achieve amazing things, in itself it cannot create a ‘social infrastructure…that builds a global community that works for us all.’ Politics and power still matter, and it is only when we link these with technology-led accountability initiatives as well more analogue, traditional efforts that of transformative change towards a more inclusive, accountable and open world is possible.

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